After the downfall of Cardinal Wolsey, his secretary, Thomas Cromwell, finds himself amongst the treachery and intrigue of King Henry VIII's court and soon becomes a close advisor to the King, a role fraught with danger.
In 1535, King Henry VIII's attempt to be declared Head of the Church in England has been denied by the Holy Roman Emperor. Meanwhile, Anne Boleyn's failure to produce a male heir leads Henry toward ...
In 1533, Anne Boleyn has given birth to a daughter, much to King Henry VIII's disdain. As Anne's paranoia over her inability to produce a son grows, Thomas Cromwell tries to convince Sir Thomas More ...
England in the 1520s is a heartbeat from disaster. If the King dies without a male heir, the country could be destroyed by civil war. Henry VIII wants to annul his marriage of twenty years and marry Anne Boleyn. The Pope and most of Europe oppose him. Into this impasse steps Thomas Cromwell: a wholly original man, a charmer, and a bully, both idealist and opportunist, astute in reading people, and implacable in his ambition. But Henry is volatile: one day tender, one day murderous. Cromwell helps him break the opposition, but what will be the price of his triumph?Written by
I would recommend, before watching this brilliant series, getting hold of the oscar winning film "A Man for All Seasons (1966)", starring Paul Schofield. The reason for this highlights why Wolf Hall is such a fascinating series; namely their portrayals of Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell could not be more different. Cromwell as the dockside bully contrasts so starkly with the introverted portrayal by Mark Rylance that comparing the two films for their character portrayals almost renders the films themselves obsolete. Watching this film first will also impact your experience of Anton Lesser's More, so I highly recommend watching it before moving on to this masterpiece.
So to start, what is Wolf Hall about? The easy answer is it's a historical costume drama about Thomas Cromwell's rise to power in King Henry's court. The plot charts the history of Henry VIII's court, beginning with Henry's divorce to Catherine of Aragon, and concluding with the infamous beheading of Anne Boleyn. The general story is well known to anyone versed in popular English history, so the twist that makes the show worth watching is how we are given Cromwell as the series protagonist. The rocky road he trods to power, and the politicians and nobles he clashes with, illustrates what the show is really about: perspective. It is about how the glasses through which we view history are tinted, and that our knowledge of events is as objective as our opinions.
Perspective is demonstrated by how Cromwell is frequently ill-treated by nobles like Norfolk, who dismiss him as a commoner at every chance. He earns enemies in the Boleyn family for the simple crime of being lower in status, and thus the one closest ally he gains is Thomas Wolsey, whom More calls "the most corrupt churchman in Christendom". The class dynamics are key here, but of more importance is the unique perspective we have from Cromwell's point of view. Through him, we learn to despise many of the Bolyns and Howards in equal measure, primarily because he himself is dismissed for his status. We learn to like those closest to Cromwell who see him for who he is personally, rather than hating him for his political actions.
Wolsey is one such character, superbly played by Jonathan Pryce who delivers a nuanced performance of a man exhausted and made cynical by years of politics. He also evoked sympathy from me, which I found surprising considering how his corruption had been drilled into me by my education. Again, we find in Pryce's performance how perspective turns all we know of a man on its head.
Nevertheless, I was caught more by Anton Lesser's portrayal of Thomas More. Anton Lesser's depiction of More is divisive, showing the saint as a lecherous and sneering villain whom you can never quite know how he pulls his political strings. His appearances opposite Rylance's Cromwell highlight their similarities as lawyers, but their differences in politics; where Cromwell is liberal and wishes to be honourable, More is lofty, cynical and distinctly academic. We also have many scenes of More that highlight how he likes to play cruel games, demonstrated by how he keeps a fool in his household because it heightens his intelligence.
His fall has been romanticised by "A Man for All Seasons", which has us believe that More was beheaded on a matter of conscience and principle. Robert Bolt has us believe that More died for a valiant cause, framed by the dockside bully of Cromwell. Wolf Hall brilliantly juxtaposes this in one simple way; instead of More, we have Cromwell in the lead role and so everything is turned on its head. More is the villain trying desperately to destabilise Henry's reign by seeking martyrdom. Cromwell is the wiser man, the more liberally minded who deplores More's hatred for heretics. We have a new image of two men crafted from a difference in perspective, and highlights how much we take for granted images of men who were drawn by other people in history.
Technically speaking it is a stunning series. The lighting is natural enough to immerse yourself in the narrative, and the costumes are convincing enough to belive history is being told before you. The music hooks you deeper into the tale with an appropriately understated score, and the acting is spectacular to see. Rylance is the highlight of the show with his introverted Cromwell who acts with conscience and necessity.
However, Wolf Hall is an intelligent show not just because it has good writing, a great story, and wonderful costumes. Many other reviews have praised this to the high heavens, but what makes this show shine is how it flips what we know of history on its head. It explores and questions how we view history, and puts to task why we look at historical figures on a two-dimensional plane, when we have such three-dimensional personalities. Wolf Hall encourages us to question what we really know about the people and politics that dominated Henry VIII's reign. That is why Wolf Hall is a great series, and not merely a good one.
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